As far as medical technology goes, there’s never been a better time to be alive than the present.
Before antibiotics were discovered, diseases caused by bacteria (like tuberculosis, diphtheria, pneumonia, and various infections) were the leading causes of death in America.
What if all those people who died had somehow been able to benefit from our modern technology?
Today, some people are freezing their bodies or heads at death in hopes of future cures for what ails them. Their goal is to be revived and cured. While several companies will take your money to freeze your body or head, there isn’t solid science showing that this will work.
We know it’s even crazier to think that we could have successfully cryogenically frozen people in the past, when medical technology was far behind what we have today, but let’s have a little fun, shall we?
Here are seven historic people (of thousands — likely millions) who died of things we could treat today, theoretically, if we had their thawed, freshly-dead and somehow rejuvenated bodies to work with:
Jane Austen, that beloved author of “Pride and Prejudice” and five other novels, died in 1817 at the age of 41. She’d been ill for quite a while, according to letters she sent in the last year of her life. Sir Zachary Cope was the first to diagnose Austen with Addison’s disease, in a 1964 article in the British Medical Journal. Interpreting the weakness, back pain, stomach upset, faintness, and skin discoloration Austen described in her letters (and symptoms she didn’t mention), Cope thought Addison’s disease was probably what killed her.
In people with Addison’s disease, the adrenal glands don’t produce enough of the hormones cortisol and aldosterone. These hormones help coordinate metabolism and blood pressure to keep the body running smoothly. When there’s not enough of them in the body, people with Addison’s suffer from weak and painful muscles, blood pressure low enough to faint, discolored skin, nausea, diarrhoea, and vomiting. If the hormone levels get low enough, it can trigger a life-threatening “addisonian crisis” as blood pressure and blood sugar drop, which may have been what happened to Austen.
If she did indeed die in an addisonian crisis, today doctors would treat Austen with an IV of hydrocortisone, saline, and sugar to bring her back, then she’d have to keep taking the hormones her adrenal glands weren’t producing. Perhaps she would be able to finish a seventh novel, “Sanditon,” that she’d started but didn’t finish before she died. We’ll never know how that one ends.
Vivien Leigh is perhaps best known for her Oscar-winning performance as Scarlett O’Hara opposite Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in “Gone with the Wind.”
Before she died of tuberculosis in 1967 at age 53, she’d had the disease for several years. Mycobacterium tuberculosis is to blame for tuberculosis’ symptoms: fever, a flushed complexion, and a dry, persistent cough that brings up blood.
Though drug-resistant tuberculosis is a concern today, it’s likely Leigh’s historical case could be treated with antibiotics, if we were able to bring her back.
Before Leigh’s time,tuberculosis also did in Emily Bronte, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and John Keats. It’s not that the disease was especially popular among authors in the 19th century, it was just that common for everyone. Thanks to effective antibiotics and changes in living conditions, deaths from tuberculosis have gone down steadily since the beginning of the 20th century.
America’s 20th president didn’t even hold the office a full year before he was assassinated in 1881. But it wasn’t really the assassin’s bullet that killed him — it was the doctors who didn’t wash their hands or instruments before they tried to remove the bullet from his back. Garfield’s wound became infected, and he hung around 11 excruciating weeks before dying. It’s more a change in medical practice to sterilize wounds and medical tools with antiseptics (which were around at the time) than an actual technological advance that could’ve saved Garfield. Still, he’d have a better shot today with modern antibiotics.
Though Garfield’s case is one-of-a-kind, he’s not too different from the thousands of Civil War soldiers who died from wound infections. Antibiotics, antiseptics, and sterile operating and examining procedures would have saved a lot of lives.
Hemophilia ran in the genes of Europe’s royal families in the 19th and 20th centuries, likely because Queen Victoria of England was a carrier, had many children, and in those days royals had a tradition of marrying other royals. Her own son, Prince Leopold, had the disease, meaning his blood lacked the proteins to make it clot after a cut. He died in 1884, age 30, after a fall that caused him to bleed heavily.
We don’t have a cure for hemophilia today, but we know how to treat it. Prince Leopold could get regular treatment that would help his blood clot, and he could get an emergency dose of clotting factors if he started bleeding profusely. He would have a much better chance of making it past 30.
Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky
Though there’s controversy surrounding the death of the composer who brought us “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker,” cholera is most likely what killed Tchaikovsky. He probably got cholera from drinking water or eating food with Vibrio cholerae, the bacteria responsible for the disease, in it. Tchaikovsky reportedly took ill the evening of October 20, 1893, and was diagnosed with cholera the next day. His symptoms might have included diarrhoea, vomiting, and leg cramps before dying of kidney failure as a complication of all the body fluids lost.
Today, cholera is treated primarily by drinking or getting an IV (if it’s an emergency) of a solution of salts, sugars, and water to replace the lost bodily fluids and electrolytes. Antibiotics would have also helped Tchaikovsky, if they had existed. But if he was actually killed by poisoning, as some conspiracy theories suggest, all bets are off.
You probably know at least one thing Descartes said: “I think, therefore I am.” The famous philosopher died in 1650 of pneumonia, apparently contracted as his health declined from living in Sweden’s harsh climate and getting up at 5 a.m. to tutor the queen in philosophy.
We can’t know whether it was bacteria, a virus, or a fungus that infected Descartes’s lungs to make them fill up with fluid so he couldn’t breathe, but if was bacteria, antibiotics could have helped him. While pneumonia is still a concern today, especially for people over 65, we have a lot more resources to treat it than the likes of Charlemagne, Robert E. Lee, Victor Hugo, and Benjamin Franklin had when they died of it long ago.
One of first men to fly died from a very common cause for his time: typhoid fever. Infection with the bacteria Salmonella Typhi not only causes the fever the disease is named for, but also weakness, stomach pains, headache, and a rash. Wilbur Wright was 45 when he died in 1912, but today doctors could treat him with antibiotics and he’d probably recover.
While we’re dreaming big, let’s also consider the 27,058 Union soldiers who died of typhoid fever during the Civil War, about 36% of all the Union soldiers diagnosed with the disease. Two thirds of the soldiers who died in the Civil War died from disease, not battle wounds. We’d be able to treat them much more effectively today.
All that’s not to say no one dies of any of these diseases anymore, unfortunately.
The WHO reported 1.8 million deaths from tuberculosis in 2008, making it one of the leading causes of death in the world. People with HIV are more vulnerable to infection by tuberculosis, and antibiotic-resistant strains of the bacteria responsible for the disease are increasingly problematic.
Really, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a terrifying prospect across the board. But at this moment in time, we should definitely appreciate how far we’ve come in the past century, and look forward to making a longer list in another 100 years.